Michael Tilson Thomas: Making Anything Sound Good

Michael Tilson Thomas: Making Anything Sound Good

Michael Tilson Thomas
Interview Excerpt #6

FRANK J. OTERI: Now in terms of hearing music for the first time and how you learn to think something is beautiful and something else is ugly and off-putting, and not pleasant to listen to. In the book that you did with Edward Seckerson, Viva Voce, you talked about your father banging your toy dog Toodles on the piano and making tone clusters and how much you enjoyed that as a child. When I was in Budapest last year for a conference, I experienced something similar when I saw these little girls at the conservatory playing these wild pedagogical pieces by Kurtag. They were great. They were filled with tone clusters and they were at times quite dissonant. They were wacky, really raucous pieces and these girls were banging their fists on the piano and were loving it. We don’t necessarily have it in us genetically to hear a major triad as beautiful and that a tone cluster is ugly. These are things that we learn through cultural training. And, you know, when you went to Bali, people didn’t know Copland or Beethoven. So they could rate one over the other. It was all new.


FRANK J. OTERI: So then the question becomes, how do we introduce people to music and what repertoire do we introduce them to from a younger age to guarantee a real wide-ranging appreciation for music?

MICHAEL TILSON THOMAS: I think music needs to be presented in a way so that kids can grasp songs, dances, simple music that’s associated with some particular defining moment in human experience. I think Bartók was very wise when he wrote the Mikrokosmos pieces and he had pieces which were called things like "Jeering Song" or "Sad Dance," very direct titles that kids could relate to. It’s kind of scary sometimes, I’ve seen this a lot in Asia. Children are given music lessons, very intensively I might add and involving great technical expertise sometimes, but you can tell that they have been told only to play happy pleasant music. They’re encouraged to only exhibit those kinds of music because if "Oh my God," if you have a child showing angry emotion, what kind of reflection would that be on the family. They have to get past that. It’s really important for kids to discover that music can be a refuge for them, but that it also can be in the music a way of getting rid of a lot of hostility and also of doing things that are fun like crashing on the piano in those Kurtag pieces you described. So, I think it is a mixture of those things. I mean, something always puzzled me. I don’t understand why the first note that everyone learns is C. I know it’s because of the C Major scale, but why start with the C Major scale. Why not just start with A? Fine, that’s the A Aeolian scale, sort of a minor sounding scale, but so what? I mean if kids hear that scale, there’s no reason that they can’t start with that? The letters of the notes are in the proper order and it makes total sense. And it’s also all white notes. It’s right there, easy to play. I feel it would be really good to get past this cultural bias that we have that somehow major is the way things are always supposed work out. Major is just one of the many flavors of music.

FRANK J. OTERI: And, certainly in other cultures, like India, there are thousands of ragas which prove that there are so many different possible ways to organize a group of pitches in a scale. But to get back to education and nurturing musical values, we’re down here in Miami Beach where you do this tremendous work with the New World Symphony. How did that whole thing begin? And why Miami?

MICHAEL TILSON THOMAS: It happened because of Ted Arison, a remarkable patron who had read some interviews in which I had been talking about the need for there to be a national orchestra like this, really an academy like this. And I met with him, and we discussed this idea of creation of the academy and it was really just a very general idea in my own mind at that point. He said great, let’s do it and we immediately started up and now over the 12 or 13 years we’ve been in existence, we’ve been trying to refine this more and more to deal with the specific issues that are there for young performers, to give them real facility in playing baroque music, classical music, very contemporary music, and all of the different nationalities and stylistic eras of music so they really have a sense of the personality of that music and they as performers can really be leaders in having a sense of appropriateness, that conviction in presenting each kind of music, both as performers and also as spokespersons for it.

FRANK J. OTERI: And as these people leave this program and go on to major orchestras around the country, they’ll be the model for orchestral musicians of the future.

MICHAEL TILSON THOMAS: It’s very exciting to see what is happening. I tend to be very low key about this because our profession has a certain kind of tough guy aspect about some of it. Yeah, yeah, well, you know everybody comes along and of course most people are very enthusiastic about doing what they do when they’re in their 20s or 30s. The real challenge in music is going the distance and still being as devoted and enthusiastic you know after 20 or 30 or 40 years in the profession, but yet there are people who do make that happen. And what we’re trying to do here is to focus on those issues from the very beginning. You know what is it about music that is so wonderful? Where can you find the sense of fulfillment in doing something really at the highest level of excellence and accept the idea that for your entire life you will need to be in training continuously, studying continuously, in order to expand you horizons, so it becomes ever new and ever fresh? That is your greatest responsibility. That’s a lot of what we’re dedicated to creating here.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, the repertoire that you choose to do here is so interesting and diverse. To return to what you were saying earlier in this conversation, a lot of the great masterpieces don’t need as many rehearsals as a new piece of music because the players in the orchestras have played the great masterpieces under other conductors for years and are familiar with the pieces. But here you’re dealing with a level playing field. All the baggage is gone, but so are all of the past experiences. And perhaps you’d want to rehearse a Brahms symphony as much as you’d rehearse a piece like Connotations by Aaron Copland.

MICHAEL TILSON THOMAS: Yes, there is a lot to do in all the repertoire to establish the underlying principles of the sort of moves that need to be made by performers in that repertoire. But, it’s amazing how quick the learning curve can be for something like that. Even in professional orchestras, like I’m thinking back to years ago when I started doing the Ives Symphonies in San Francisco. It was a very intricate process of rehearsing things, very intensive, took a lot of time, mini-sectional rehearsals, everything… Whatever we needed to do to really make it happen. But just this last year at the Mavericks Festival, we did Ives Four. There was very little rehearsal for it. But the orchestra had played it before, and moreover although they hadn’t played it in many, many years, they, in the intervening time had done a number of other Ives pieces so that the style of it was clear in their collectives consciousness.

FRANK J. OTERI: So something like the Ives Fourth had become standard repertoire.

MICHAEL TILSON THOMAS: Almost in that they knew what the sound should be, and what the rhythmic feel should be, and we were able to just work it out together very, very quickly. And that same thing can happen in a wide variety of pieces, providing that at some point in time, you’ve had the experience of working out what the basic assumptions are. And that is a very important experience for conductors and orchestra members alike to have, this experience where they together kind of reach a common understanding of what is going to happen. And I believe very much that it is very much a collaborative process. That the members of the orchestra have as much to contribute to it as the conductor because they have a life experience of this music which is quite relevant and important.

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